Shameful Spectacle Over the Not-at-Ground Zero Mosque

August 23rd, 2010

I have to say that the hysteria over the (grossly misnamed) “Ground Zero Mosque” made me sick this week.

I actually wanted to write something before today because I had a suspicion that Frank Rich’s column would, once again, capture the national zeitgeist as no one else could. He did not disappoint.

Rich’s column covers a lot of ground in an inclusive way and Nicholas Kristof provides some added commentary on the stakes. I added my comments below.

Part of the frustration that Americans feel about the struggle against Islamic extremism is that we can only do so much. At the heart of the problem of Islamic extremism is a struggle of ideals: a struggle between Western ideals and radical Islamic ideals, but also a struggle within Islam between a peaceful, modern and moderate faction and a reactionary, fundamentalist and violent faction.

This is a frustrating reality for us in the Western world because all of the tanks, missiles and security checkpoints that we have at our disposal aren’t particularly useful for fighting a war of ideals. And the words spoken by Americans–whether they are George Bush or Barack Obama–don’t matter very much if they don’t stimulate discussion or debate within Muslim communities. Given this reality, it is clear that supporting moderate voices in the Muslim world is key to our ultimate safety and success in this war of ideas. 

The imam of the Park51 mosque, Feisal Abdul Rauf, is just such a voice. As Frank notes, this is the man who was hired by the Bush State Department to travel around the world and explain to Muslim audiences the value of religious pluralism, discuss how American values are compatible with Islam and generally promote his brand of moderate Islam.   He gave a eulogy for Jewish  journalist Daniel Pearl, who was gruesomely murdered by Islamist extremists, where he condemned his execution and proclaimed “I am Jew,” an extraordinary statement for a Muslim imam. The board of his Park51 organization includes Jewish and Christian members as well as Muslims and his center is modeled on the Jewish Community Center in Manhattan’s Upper West Side.

To be sure, Rauf’s views of American foreign policy are not one’s that would help him win the nomination of the Republican party, but neither are they radical. In fact, as was detailed in a New York Times article today, his life history and faith make him someone uniquely qualified to build support for a moderate interpretation of Islam in the 21st Century. 

George Bush made many mistakes as president, and his administration wasn’t afraid of exploiting American  ignorance and fear of Muslims to conflate Al Qaeda and Saddam Hussein, but one thing he did do well was to always stress that we weren’t at war with Islam, we were at war with a group of people that used Islam to justify their murderous ideology.

To now not allow a moderate imam to build a community center  that includes a prayer space in Lower Manhattan is effectively saying to all Muslims: we do not distinguish between you and we blame all of you for the attacks committed by a few. That is not what America is about nor is it what we should stand for. That’s not living up to American ideals. It’s giving into intolerance and fear.

Of all the politicians jockeying for political gain by preying on the worst tendencies in Americans, presidential hopeful Newt Gingrich distinguished himself as the most hateful and politically opportunist when he posted on his webpage “There should be no mosque near Ground Zero in New York so long as there are no churches or synagogues in Saudi Arabia.”

Really?

This man who would like to replace Barack Obama as president’s believes that we should base the constitutional freedoms that we grant our own citizens on what the Islamic kingdom of Saudi Arabia does? And these are the people who say that Barack Obama doesn’t understand American values?

As Rich points out, the proposed community center and mosque is two blocks away from Ground Zero  “at the ‘hallowed ground’ of a shuttered Burlington Coat Factory store one block from the New York Dolls Gentlemen’s Club.” It is not visible from Ground Zero, nor will you be able to see it from the site. There will be no “call to prayer”  that can be heard from Ground Zero as some conservatives have suggested.

The opposition to the community center basically amounts to a First Amendment Free Zone that applies only to Muslims within a certain radius of Ground Zero. Opponents of the development need to explain just how far this First Amendment Free Zone for Muslims extends.  If it’s not okay for Muslims to worship two blocks away from Ground Zero, is it okay three blocks away?  What about the mosque four blocks away that has been in existence since before the World Trade Center was built? Does that need to be shut down because the “9-11 families” (some of whom actually support the mosque) might be offended? Surely these people have a right to be heard and we should consider their advice, but they don’t have a right to dictate all development in the Lower Manhattan area.  

If the owner of the building and the imam decide to relocate of their own free will, I’m fine with that. But they should not be cowed into that decision by a group of politicians taking advantage of fear and intolerance in order to advance their own careers. 

It’s time for America to take a look in the mirror and see how we are behaving and the message it sends around the world. America is best when we celebrate diversity and have an honest dialogue about the issues we face in common. We won’t defeat the terrorists by compromising our values and becoming as intolerant as they are.  We need to get over the Islamophobia and live up to the ideas of religious tolerance and individual rights that the country has stood for since its founding.

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